Welcome to the 16th upgrade of this on line version of Green’s Dictionary of Slang. It also marks the 10th anniversary of its initial, three-volume hardbacked publication. Acute users will note that it offers only two months of research. This is to link future updates to a given year (four per: Jan.-Mar., Apr. to June, etc)) rather than, as has been the case, overflowing from one year to another (i.e. Nov.-Jan.).
As ever the update offers a mix of new terms, whether from the past or as near present as research can achieve, and a number of predates of existing terms, each one gnawing yet further at that most desirable of bones, the first recorded use. Since there are sufficient statistics below I shall skip the usual counts. Unfortunately the demise of the Timeglider software means that again and for the future the list of all these additions will no longer be available in their established blue for predate and red for neologism, but as a pair of Excel files, which can be found here and here.
Research over the last two months has focused on three major sources: a 1910s Australian newspaper, a mid-20th century list of ‘Thieves [sic] Slang’ and a very recent novel, long-listed for the current Booker Prize, which is perhaps the first such work to be written almost wholly in Multi-cultural London English (MLE).
The newspaper, The Sport, a weekly launched in Adelaide in 1911 (research has so far covered 1911-1914) has the dubious role of joining such papers as the mid-19th century New York ‘flash press’ and its London equivalents, plus a number of Australian contemporaries, notably the Sunday Times of Perth but also any paper that offered a column (often a page) headed with some version of the titillating phrase ‘They Say’. These were plentiful and used such columns to parade a succession of what were essentially scurrilous anecdotes, usually featuring the amatory doings of well-known local figures in what skated the very thin line between gossip and libel. The excuse was that all such pars were submitted by friends of the named (named, that is, through initials which were doubtless wholly transparent in the communities from which they came). It is not to slang’s credit that examples of its use can be found spattered over the texts, but this is slang’s world and such scurrility regularly offered terms that had yet to be recorded elsewhere.
The Thieves Slang lists – created as part of training their detectives by the Birmingham Police force of the time – were brought to my attention by a tweet from Ben Griffin, lecturer in modern British history at Cambridge. He was kind enough to make and then send me a copy of the 1947 edition. This was then trumped, most politely, by the West Midlands Police Museum, where WMP Heritage Project Manager Corinne Brazier turned up a predecessor, seemingly the same list but with a publication date of 1935. I am very grateful to them both. The list has come up with 450-odd citations, of which many are either predates or what (nearly 150 examples) to me was new material. All are available via the update and can be searched out. Detail aside, what comes across is that this was still very much an English English slang. One can see that American words – as they were doing in the wider world – were beginning to creep in, but the vast majority are straight out of Fabian of the Yard or Dixon of Dock Green and the world of quota quickies. All that’s missing is ‘put the bracelets on, guv, it’s a fair cop’. (No bracelets, but darbies, which goes back to 1676, is there).
Finally the novel: Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze. Reviews have been plentiful and uniformly positive, if somewhat shocked by the author’s portrait of a world that, as he points out, exists wholly parallel to that of ‘respectable’ society, except for when the former targets the latter in the hope of pillaging its wealth. Plot aside – a series of vignettes that stem from the author’s own experiences and, quite deliberately, sidesteps the slightest gesture towards morality or regret – the book offers over 400 examples of MLE, with its mix of English slang, language that has emerged from American rap and British grime, Caribbean patois and local invention. It is perhaps a niche preoccupation to class a creative work by the density of slang therein, but for lexicographical purposes, Who They Was is exemplary.
Green’s Dictionary of Slang was published in late 2010. Its three volumes were priced at £300 (though amazon seemed able to reduce this radically and for a while such reductions saw it top the various charts in which it was eligible). It was well-reviewed and won the 2012 Dartmouth Medal of the American Library Association as ‘a reference work of outstanding quality and significance.’ In 2016, after many dead ends, the dictionary – as had always been intended – went on line. The initial plan was to make the barebones information free, but to ask for a subscription to unlock the citations or usage examples that underpinned the headwords and their various senses. It was assumed that this latter would be acceptable to academic users and their institutions, although individuals would probably not need the detailed information. The truth was that without marketing expertise, and support from a publisher, these hopes proved unfounded. As of October 2018 the dictionary was offered in its entirety to all users and for free. It has gradually expanded, on the basis of the three-monthly updates (starting in October 2016 when the digital launch included all additions since print publication), which are posted on line and incorporate the latest advances in research, whether these be additions, improvements or corrections.
Although these figures are by the dictionary’s evolving nature temporary, at this moment, its 16th update and 10th birthday, the database that provides the on line material now runs to 55,719 headwords, which cover 137,235 nested senses, derivatives, compounds, phrases and exclamations. These are underpinned by some 679,874 citations, 101,853 of which have been researched since print publication. There have also been many predatings of existing terms, but since these can have multiple examples for the same term as new discoveries push the ‘first use’ into the past, it is hard to make a count. Certainly the database as a whole far surpasses its printed predecessor, both as to quantity and, I hope, quality.
All of which should offer a moment of pleasure. It does, but it is also marred by the backstory. If it has reached this position, it is not through a loyal editor, a supportive publisher or any of the professional helpmates that a work that I am constantly informed is of such excellence, should receive. The reality is that I have been given no such help. Individual support, yes, and I am hugely grateful; institutional, nothing but what slang terms the soldier’s farewell, and that long since.
Reviewing the print edition, the cultural commentator Jonathan Meades said of slang that its role was not to offer what we are ‘enjoined to think, but what we actually do think.’ There is nothing especially revelatory to be added but I offer a few words on the dictionary’s history. If those concerned object, tough. I appreciate that it is, even in contemporary England where all previous bets seem long since off, still considered vulgar to say what one thinks. Laugh and laugh and be a villain tends to be the way. Or at least bite one’s (stiff and doubtless upper) lip. I cannot, frankly, be fucked. But then, but for the accident of geography, I am not English.
Forty years ago I chose the gig (albeit under very different circumstances) and come what may I continue to revel in it. This, I am wholly aware, is a privilege. (Though not one determined by accident of birth, skin colour, racial background, gender preference or any of the other identities currently so obsessing the pure in heart. Like slang, I lack such zealotry.) In any case, what matters is the database and the website that offers it a public life. If this is of use, it is its own justification. The backstory, while unsatisfying, is no different from many in the world of reference, where the fate of some of its most important projects — Jonathan Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) are prime examples — has been to be abandoned by publishers for whom the bottom line demands immediate satisfaction and all else can be tossed away regardless. Lexicography is a long-term game, sometimes very long-term indeed, and we live in a short-term world; one can expect little else. (The welcoming line from my own ultimate publishers, landed with the project through the vagaries of takeovers, was ‘You know we don’t want to to publish this book.’). Even the OUP, supposed guardian of the OED, may be faltering. Anyone one who knows the story of that mighty enterprise knows too that relations between the bean-counters and the arrogant supervisory dons of late 19th century Oxford and those who actually rose each day to continue the remarkable work of making the dictionary were always fraught. But the OUP always came through, however reluctantly. It is to be hoped, worrying rumours notwithstanding, that this remains the case.
This book was commissioned at the end of the Nineties and followed on what might be seen as a trial run, a single-volume, non-cited version that in turn had been commissioned in 1993. For whatever reason, I could not have chosen a worse period to sustain a lengthy project. Within three years the company for whom the book was to be published had gone, and with it my pair of rabbis, as some New Yorkers term their professional ‘friends at court’. My then agent asked what the new owners’ plans might be. The answer: ‘we’ll publish…if we have to.’ That, it would prove, was the best I would hear. But I was effectively a decade into the game, hitting ‘delete’ was not an option. I started looking for other patrons (the cries of ‘No, don’t go!’ were deafening in their absence). A lengthy entanglement with the OUP proved futile: we almost reached the altar, but their pre-nup was just too demanding. Back to square one. In the end I was picked up by Chambers, one of the great reference publishers that emerged in late 19th century Scotland. In 2008 they published a revised single volume. I kept working on the big ’un.
Publication was finally scheduled for late 2010. Twelve months earlier, with new research paused and proofing proceeding, I was informed that Chambers too had now gone. The uber-publisher, Hachette (based in Paris, and who had already dumped the work once when Cassell, another of their properties, was killed off) promised that somehow there would be a dictionary. But for now: don’t call us, we’ll call you. Not until the new year – publication year – did I meet my new publisher. As I said, they were less than enthusiastic. But eventually there it was. I had a shirt made, and hosted a party – no-one else, it was made clear, wished to do so – and there they sat there amid the ranks of wine: three large, green volumes.
I had signed the contract in 1998 and knew, even then, that what was termed an ‘e-book’ would be absolutely vital. (Even if no-one yet knew exactly what such a thing was meant to be – the OED’s entry suggests that the primary use then referred to the electronic reader, rather than the texts it would offer). If reference publishers were becoming an endangered species, then reference itself was as vital as ever and its logical home, with limits on neither space nor the possibilities of sophisticated search, not to mention almost instant updating if one wished to do so, was due to become the only game in town. A clause was inserted into the deal: when time permitted, there would be a digital version. But as I said, the ultimate publishers, fearing even further depredations of their bottom line, refused to follow through. I didn’t like it? Then fuck off: we won’t publish you at all. It was interesting, however, that when I said, OK, let me have the electronic rights back since you don’t wish to exploit them, the gun returned to my head and a deal was made, over my opposition, for a digital facsimile – no revisions, no updates, and thus pretty much pointless – to be sold elsewhere. It was hoped, I assume, that the publisher could recoup some of their outlay. Only then was I permitted access to what was mine.
It took six years to launch a proper on-line version. I touted the project to business people, who naturally asked ‘what’s in it for me?’ and who who greeted my suggestion that there might be something in simply helping sustain a worthwhile piece of work with what social media would term ROFL and a speedy escort of this madman from the premises. I tried universities, who excused themselves: ‘wonderful idea, but we haven’t a spare penny’. One did flirt optimistically for 12 months only to admit that in the end they hadn’t a clue of how best to do the job and must renege. Various young helpfuls emerged from Silicon Roundabout and other tech utopias, took me to high places, showed me the world, and eventually slipped away, nothing achieved other than fattening their pockets through my gullibility.
In the end the job was done. A young coder came out of nowhere (i.e. Twitter) and volunteered. The details are secondary and they are credited elsewhere here, but my gratitude is permanent. Which brings me to the point. If no institution has seen fit to support the work, then I remain hugely indebted to a number of individuals. Some are ‘in the business’, a number have written on line and in print about the work, and others are simply sympathetic and some, of course, are my loyal friends. I am also grateful to everyone who finds the dictionary useful. Were I less senescent I should produce a lengthy list, but I must beg forgiveness. Put it down to an old man’s eroding memory and my terror of overlooking anyone. The lexicography of slang has always been a solitary trade, but that needn’t make it a lonely one. It is all of you who convince me that even if at times I may believe it to be so, I am not merely an old fart sitting in a small room grubbing up yet another synonym for wanking.
[*‘Speak Bitterness’ (诉苦) was a form of intensive propaganda session (like all propaganda a mix of governmental diktat and the manipulation of mass ignorance and gullibility) aimed at uniting the peasants against the ‘class enemies’ (i.e. landlords) whose lands had been confiscated. The attacks were the prelude to longer, ‘struggle sessions’ which invariably incorporated stage-managed violence. My comments are nothing of the sort, but I can’t deny a certain affection for the phrase.]